The Value of Vulnerability

There’s no shortage of “how to manage a crisis” articles, experts and opinions. But I recently stumbled upon a Harvard Business Review (HBR) piece entitled “The Organizational Apology” that raised an eyebrow. It was chock full of good advice, but established a premise that, I believe, could be dangerously misperceived or misapplied – that organizational apologies can be, almost literally, manufactured. To quote the piece, “…we present an apology formula… that provides a diagnostic and practical guidance on the who, what, where, when and how of an apology.” The authors even recommended conducting “apology rehearsals” to help ensure they are well-executed.

So many business best practices can be flow-charted. How to apologize, in my view, is just not one of them. Often, the very attempt to do this inflicts even more reputational harm and lengthens the “tail” of crisis resolution. Crises strip us of control and make organizations vulnerable. Apologies intensify that several times. Trying to minimize that vulnerability, retain control and avoid pain is human nature. The paradox of effective organizational apologies – like personal apologies – is that they demand the exact opposite. Vulnerability can be your most important asset in healing your organization and brand.

We intuitively know this. In hot water with your spouse or significant other? Try a carefully crafted apology delivered via prepared statement, and refuse to take Q&A. Then, settle into your dog house for the long haul. Forgiveness demands sincerity. Sincerity demands vulnerability. Your significant other wants to see that. Same applies to your organization’s brand.

Your Organizational Act of Contrition

Here’s a simple, alternative way to think about an effective apology that can help guide leadership, especially top executives, through the uncertainty of the corporate apology as they process multiple opinions on how to best do it. It’s anchored in the Christian, and from my point of view Catholic, notion of contrition for sin, but applies regardless of religious orientation.

From the perspective of these faith traditions, contrition comes in two forms. The first and more common type of contrition is imperfect contrition. It means being sorry for sins committed for fear of the personal consequences to you or your organization. It’s the proverbial, “S/he-is-sorry-only-because-s/he-got-caught” contrition. We all have a sixth sense for this type of contrition; it’s called cynicism. Imperfect contrition breeds the “non-apology apology.” It’s the star-athlete holding an apology press conference under pressure from corporate sponsors, or the CEO who famously just wanted “his life back.” Imperfect contrition is born from vulnerability avoidance and some belief that just the right words will create the appearance of sincerity.  Just like in our personal relationships, your (INSERT CONSTITUENT HERE) is smarter than that. Imperfect contrition typically deepens the reputational pit you’re in.

The second form – and more difficult to achieve – is perfect contrition. Perfect contrition means being sorry for sins committed with no regard to the personal or organizational consequences. Your sole focus and source of concern is the people affected and making things right by them. Imperfect contrition leads with the question of “What are we going to say?” Perfect contrition leads with, “What are we going to do to help those affected?”

This form of contrition often gives your lawyers and boards of directors indigestion, since it allows your organization to be vulnerable and cedes more control of the situation over to affected parties. Even if our instincts push us toward perfect contrition, there can be substantial organizational opposition to it. A perfectly contrite apology takes courage, leadership and faith in the ability of affected parties to forgive. Many of the textbook examples of best-managed corporate crises, whether that’s Johnson and Johnson’s Tylenol recall back in the ’80s, JetBlue’s post ice-storm brand recovery in the mid-2000s, or the examples of action-oriented crises responses I have witnessed among the clients we serve, you’ll find some sense of perfect contrition at their core.

Calculus or Conscience

As the HBR article affirms, crises are often complex and there can be a lot of calculus involved in if/when/how to apologize. But when calculus replaces conscience, you get problems. As Jeffrey Pfeffer, an organizational and human resources expert from Stanford University wrote in Fortune last year, “Unfortunately, in today’s world, everyone apologizes all the time. Therefore, they may not be as effective because talk is cheap and people expect actions, not just words, to ensure that the behavior doesn’t happen again.”

In any crisis, top leaders should listen carefully to the concerns of their legal counsel, their board and their management teams. But the most important role a CEO can have in a crisis is guiding the tail of their organization’s response and serving as their organization’s conscience, especially when stepping into the public confessional.

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